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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 4

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Childcare Services

Bríd Smith

Question:

117. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the details of progress that has been made in installing HEPA filters in childcare centres, preschools and crèches; his plans to complete the process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5410/22]

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Bríd Smith. The Minister will be aware of the very high rates of Covid infection that continue among children, particularly those between zero and five years of age. During the week, I got figures about the levels of hospitalisation, which are strikingly high for those aged between zero and five. This is understandable as they are the one category not vaccinated. What progress is the Government making in getting HEPA filters installed in childcare centres, preschools and crèches to provide protection for both staff and children?

In December of last year, I announced a €10 million grant programme to improve ventilation and reduce the transmission of Covid-19 in early learning and childcare settings. This provided services with grants ranging from €1,500 to €4,500. The rental or purchase of HEPA filters is among the items of eligible expenditure under this grant programme and guidance has been provided on the HEPA filters that are suitable for use in childcare settings. The grant programme opened for applications on 16 December. The original closing date of 7 January 2022 but we extended it to 31 January 2022 so that as many services as possible could avail of this grant. Some 4,109 services have now applied the grant which means that 95% of eligible services have made an application.

That €10 million grant programme is just part of a suite of supports provided to the early learning and childcare sector since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other supports include tailored funding arrangements during periods of closure and restricted access to services, a range of capital programmes, an antigen programme, sector-specific infection prevention and control guidelines and access to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, with an exemption to the turnover rule. The provision of the EWSS at the full rate is equal to an investment of €34 million per month. The value of EWSS at standard rates is equal to an investment in the sector of €22 million per month. That additional money has allowed for sector-specific public health guidance to be implemented. The most important aspect of this is the play pod system that has been implemented since the beginning of the pandemic.

There is strong evidence that these Covid-19 supports are helping and supporting the early learning and care sector. Recent Tusla data show that the number of early learning and childcare settings that closed completely decreased significantly in 2021 compared with the previous two years. Data from the Revenue Commissions show that the number of staff employed in the sector has held steady. HSE data show that the rates of transmission within early learning and childcare settings have remained low compared with rates of community transmission.

There is one vital piece of information I do not think was contained in the Minister's answer and that I would be interested in getting, that is, how many of the crèches and other childcare facilities have HEPA filters installed. That is key information the Government and the Minister absolutely must have. We know from Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HSPC, figures released this week that there were 251 outbreaks of Covid in childcare settings during waves 4 and 5 and that seven of those outbreaks took place in the first four weeks of this year. The figures I have got from the hospitals state that in Temple Street hospital there are 25 children under five compared with nine children aged five to 11 and that in Crumlin there are 60 children aged between zero and five compared with 24 between six and 11. We know that temperatures are likely to drop again in winter. In circumstances in which there is no filtration, the only protection people have is to have the windows wide open, whereas with filtration systems the windows still need to be open but can be open less wide and for a shorter time while maintaining minimum temperatures.

I do not have the specific figure for the number of HEPA filters. I will speak to my Department and see if we can get that figure to the Deputy as quickly as possible. This grant scheme was designed specifically to deal with the issue of ventilation. We know that providers were very interested and had been in touch with my Department to see how we could facilitate them. We facilitated them with this very significant grant. As the Deputy will have seen from the figures I have cited to him, there has been a very significant take-up of the grant. I believe providers will have gone out to source and implement this in respect of the guidance my Department has provided as to what is the right type of filter and what is the right scale and size of filter for the particular settings each provider has, recognising the very different sizes and scales of settings around the country.

It seems to me that the fact the Minister does not have the figures illustrates the problem with this approach of establishing a grant and then crèches and crèche operators having to jump through various hoops to get the grant and then install the filters, as opposed to simply going out and saying this is important and that the Department will centrally purchase the appropriate number of HEPA filters needed and then distribute them into the facilities across the country. Can the Minister at least reassure me some HEPA filters have been installed under this grant scheme? I know that in respect of schools, for example, a couple of weeks ago a similar grant scheme was in operation and not a single HEPA filter had been installed as a consequence. The principals said that was a long bureaucratic process and that it would be the summer before they got there. Is the same hampering the roll-out under this scheme in the crèches?

The final point I will make is the importance of long Covid. We know that about 10% of people get long Covid. Obviously, many of them will recover from that, but it can affect children particularly, which means it is vital we do everything we can to protect children as well as staff.

We have taken very extensive measures to protect children, and the grant we provided this December is not the first grant. A €5 million outdoor play grant was provided in June of last year, and just short of €30 million was provided for a reopening grant in August 2020, around the time I entered this role, to support the reopening of services following the initial large-scale closure. Very significant capital grants have been provided to childcare facilities all over the country to make them ready and to make those services safe, and I know providers have implemented that. I have been in childcare facilities. I have seen the differences, the screens and the various provisions that have been put in place. I have spoken to some providers in my own constituency about the HEPA filter grant. They appreciated that additional support and the extra security and public health safety it provided. It is not bureaucratic; we have made this available as quickly as possible to providers. That is certainly the response I have got back from them.

EU Programmes

Neasa Hourigan

Question:

118. Deputy Neasa Hourigan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the position on measures his Department is taking to implement the EU child guarantee; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5428/22]

I ask the Minister to outline the position on measures his Department is taking to implement the EU child guarantee.

I believe that significant advancements can be made through my Department's co-ordination of the EU child guarantee. It is an important initiative which aims to combat social exclusion by guaranteeing access for children who are in need of a range of key services.

I will publish our national action plan for the child guarantee by March of this year. The commitments under the guarantee address critical matters such as free access to early childhood education; education; healthcare for children in need; healthy nutrition, including a healthy meal each school day; and adequate housing.

Tackling child poverty and effectively implementing the child guarantee will require the commitment and active, sustained participation of my colleagues across the Government to make sure it is ultimately impactful. As part of the child guarantee process, and in developing the successor national policy framework to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, I will engage with my Cabinet colleagues to consider the most appropriate and effective structures to pursue the reforms necessary to improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged children and young people. The child guarantee will form one element of the broader body of work supported by the new national policy framework for children and young people and its implementation structures.

On a related note, addressing child poverty was identified as a priority action under Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures and will remain a priority for its successor framework. Then there is the work being undertaken by the Department of Social Protection. It leads on the road map for social inclusion. Under that road map, a new child poverty reduction target will be introduced, and I will meet the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, later this month in respect of that.

Finally, we will continue to look at those mechanisms to make sure we have a whole-of-government approach. I met with the Ombudsman for Children and we had a good debate about his "new normal" report just before Christmas in this House. There is also the position paper of the national advisory council on child poverty, which is a really useful document. I also wish to make better use of the Cabinet committee on social affairs, particularly pre-budget, allowing a discussion specifically on how our next budget will address child poverty each year.

I know from previous conversations with the Minister that he is well aware of some of these issues. As for the child guarantee, I am selfishly thinking particularly of my constituency, where we have high numbers of children experiencing homelessness and children who are from migrant families and who sometimes find it difficult to access services. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is very much aware of the issues around disability. Are there aspects of the child guarantee that speak particularly to those vulnerable groups or those groups who require more effort and more thought? How will we tackle that, and is there specific provision for them in the work the Minister is doing?

Yes, very much so. The child guarantee will be one piece and will sit within the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, BOBF, successor strategy. The child guarantee is focused on children in need. That is the term used in the EU provision, which refers to the delivery of free childcare, free education and free healthcare to children in need. Obviously, that very much encompasses the groups about which the Deputy talks. There is some EU funding available under the child guarantee, which is particularly beneficial. Once we submit our action plan, we will be able to make applications for targeted programmes that will look to achieve the outcomes set out in that regard. The child guarantee, however, is a slightly narrower element. That is why we are not looking at it alone but, rather, placing it within the BOBF successor strategy, which looks at a broader context of children at risk of poverty and items such as homelessness the Deputy has addressed. That will allow us to address that in a comprehensive way, bringing together all those different Departments. This cannot be just a matter for my Department and the Department of Social Protection; all Departments are involved.

I am very heartened to hear of the threading through of issues of child poverty throughout the Minister's statement. I appreciate that housing is not his brief, but we have 2,500 children in emergency accommodation. The cost of rents in particular is rising rapidly, and the cost of living is difficult for families on lower incomes. Will the Minister talk to me a little about what the child guarantee will mean for children?

I am thinking particularly of children in emergency accommodation.

The issue of children and young people who are homeless is identified in the programme for Government. There is a commitment to bring forward a strategy in this regard. That will be led by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage but my Department will also be feeding into it. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I have met on that issue once already and we will seek to do so again. The work being done between our two Departments can be knit into the child guarantee and the successor to the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures strategy, which looks at matters through a wider lens. I do not believe the child guarantee specifically focuses on homelessness but I can come back to the Deputy on that. That is not to say we will not address the absolutely crucial issue of homelessness among children and young people.

I got a really interesting paper from Focus Ireland with regard to young LGBT+ people and their particular vulnerability to homelessness. They may encounter particular situations which other sectors of the population may not. The Deputy also made reference to migrant homelessness. There are very specific issues in respect of different vulnerable populations, which may require tailored solutions.

Departmental Policies

Christopher O'Sullivan

Question:

119. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the national participation framework for children and young people’s participation in decision making; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5434/22]

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan. I welcome the launch of the national participation framework for children and young people's participation in decision making last April. What is the current status of this framework?

The national participation framework for children and young people's participation in decision making was published in April last year. It plays a vital role in ensuring that all children and young people are respected and listened to and that their views are taken on board routinely in the public services offered to them.

The framework's implementation is actively supported by my Department through the capacity-building measures and training provided by Hub na nÓg. The hub was established as a centre of excellence and co-ordination to drive and support children and young people's participation in decision making nationally. In 2021, phase 1 of a capacity-building grant to train staff in the use of the framework was allocated to arts organisations, disability, homelessness and Traveller service providers, the justice sector and early learning and childcare services. A key feature of this €150,000 grant is that funded organisations must also undertake training from Hub na nÓg. That training provides an understanding of the policy commitment to the voice of the child. Practitioners are provided with tools that enable them to involve children and young people in decision making in their day-to-day services and activities. In 2022, phase 2 of the capacity grant scheme will see sporting organisations and youth services included.

Hub na nÓg also continues to engage bilaterally with Government Departments, agencies and key stakeholders. Further methodologies for seldom heard children and younger children are being developed. Hub na nÓg is also working with academic partners to develop an online training module.

The vision of the framework is about participation with purpose. This will ensure that, when young people are involved in decision making, their views are listened to and given due weight with the intention of influencing the outcome or initiating change. This vision recognises our children as citizens of today and not just as the adults of tomorrow.

This framework plays a vital role in supporting Departments, agencies and organisations to improve their practices in listening to children and young people and to facilitate their voices being heard in decision making. Children cannot be the priority if their needs and concerns are not represented by the voices that are being heard. This framework is underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the national strategy on children and young people's participation in decision making. Children and young people need to have a meaningful voice in decision making, not least to help us better develop and evaluate evidence-based policies.

Just this week, I raised with an Taoiseach the issue of a child who needed a home adaptation grant because of a disability. The child faced significant barriers because there is no policy in this regard. An assessment was carried out by an adult occupational health therapist when it should have been done by a children's occupational therapist. These are the barriers we seem to be facing. Children are not just small adults; they are developing human beings who deserve to be treated with priority by every Department. Will the Minister detail the progress on the implementation of the national participation framework for children and young people's participation in decision making since its announcement, particularly as it has now been used across Departments?

I thank the Deputy for her advocacy on these issues. There are very tangible examples of the youth participation framework acting to influence Government policy. When the climate action plan was being drafted, there was a youth participation strand to get the views of young people on that issue. Similarly, the youth justice policy launched in 2020 is absolutely essential with regard to its application to young people and, again, young people were consulted on the content. To give a very practical example, as the Deputy will know, a new youth travel pass was announced in this year's budget to give a 50% reduction in fares for young people aged between 17 and 23. That was a result of advocacy from Comhairle na nÓg, whose national executive had agreed that would be its policy proposal. It engaged with me and I engaged with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and we brought forward that really positive policy initiative. That is another example of youth participation in action.

That is welcome. This framework gives a practical way for organisations and Departments to engage with and hear the voice of the child. Everybody has the right to make their own choices and every effort must be made to support people whose capacity to make decisions is a challenge. For children to have that right, they need decision makers who support and hear them. What specific practical supports are being provided to decision makers to help them to develop capacity for meaningful engagement with young people? Is there a plan to extend this?

This morning, we have heard different Members speaking about child poverty, homelessness and the school meals programme. Children are going to school hungry. I am aware of parents taking their children out of schools to attend other schools that have the hot meals programme. These are issues that seem to be getting worse. We have to make these issues a priority. We have to make sure that no child faces homelessness or goes hungry.

The key practical step we are taking is the provision of the €150,000 grant that is available to a whole range of youth organisations to allow them to upskill and train their members, increasing their ability to undertake youth participation. The Deputy has referenced a number of vulnerable groups. That is particularly important. That is the next step. Hub na nÓg is really focusing on not only how to listen to children, but how to listen to Traveller children, very young children and children with a disability to get those very distinct takes and views, which may be different from the views of the average child or young person, and to make sure they are fed into and influence processes and policy decisions taken about those groups.

Childcare Services

Matt Carthy

Question:

120. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to improve the pay and conditions of professionals in the childcare sector. [4894/22]

I would appreciate it if the Minister would outline his plans to improve the pay and conditions for professionals working in the childcare sector. I would particularly appreciate it if he would give a timeframe for the delivery of those much-needed improvements.

As I said in response to an earlier question, I am very conscious of the need for a significant improvement in pay and working conditions in the early learning and childcare sector. The level of pay, which averaged €12.60 per hour in 2021, does not in any way reflect the importance of the work or the skill and expertise required. The consequence of low pay, the high turnover of staff, undermines the quality of children's early learning experiences.

My Department has, over a number of years, provided a range of financial supports to providers in the sector to support them to improve pay and conditions. Measures that are still in place include higher rates of capitation payments to services with graduate room leaders in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and to services employing qualified inclusion co-ordinators.

In December 2020, I began a process which examined the possibility of regulating pay and conditions through the use of a joint labour committee. That committee has now been established and started meeting in December of last year. To support the joint labour committee in drawing up an employment regulation order to determine minimum rates of pay, I secured a very significant additional investment in budget 2022, fulfilling a key commitment in the programme for Government. There is €69 million available this year and €207 million available in a full year. I hope to see the joint labour committee bring forward its recommendations in the coming months. This would allow us to implement the new pay scales in September of this year.

I recognise that, this week two years ago, early learning educators, providers and parents were out on the streets protesting conditions in this sector. That protest is being marked tomorrow with a day of recognition and hope. During the Covid pandemic, as a country, we have gained a better appreciation of the great work done by childcare professionals and providers in education for our children and keeping them safe.

There is much more to be done in this area, but I believe that the measures and policies undertaken by the Government over the past 18 months show our commitment to supporting this essential sector during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also in future.

The Minister's commitment to the sector will be judged on two measures, namely, the conditions experienced by those working in it and the costs borne by those people bringing their children to childcare facilities. Neither of those two areas has seen any improvement since this Government took office or since those thousands of people came onto the streets two years ago. We must, therefore, speed this process up, and one of my questions specifically focuses on when the Minister is going to publish and outline the new core funding model. Childcare facilities are businesses, and they are also responsible for the care of our young children. In some cases, those are vulnerable young children. Those facilities cannot just turn on a switch in June and change their entire model. The Minister indicated that he has specific funding available in the context of staff and conditions for this year and next year. If it is possible to outline what the funding is going to be, surely then there must also be some idea of when that is going to be rolled out and what it will mean. When will the Minister release the details, including a breakdown, of all the new aspects of the core funding model to enable those people managing and operating childcare facilities to start planning for this new model?

We have outlined our commitments to fund childcare facilities under the EWSS until the end of April. Providers are aware of the level of funding being provided in that context. From May, June, July and August, we have brought forward a contingency Covid-19 bridging fund, for which €37 million has been provided. It will kick in during those months, and then from September the new core funding will apply. There is, therefore, no question of just turning on a switch in this regard. An extensive and consistent level of funding has been provided for the sector.

Turning to the specific question regarding what the new core funding will look like, we are putting the final elements to the formulas that will deliver the details of what each provider will receive. By the end of March, we will provide a ready reckoner which will enable any childcare facility to enter its details and get an understanding of how much money it will be getting in the following September, assuming that the joint labour committee for the sector is fully working. My Department is continuing to meet with the Youth Forum, and is also communicating directly with the sector to update it about what is happening.

I take it from the Minister's response that those childcare providers I referred to will have the full information by March. I welcome that he expects the JLC process to be complete by then and that the Department will have published the breakdown of how this process will work in future.

The next point, then, concerns those people working today in stressful conditions, because childcare facilities are probably one of the last remaining areas where Covid-19 is still having an impact on staff and children. I refer as well to the control mechanisms that must be in place. I am talking, therefore, about people working in stressful conditions and who are also highly qualified, as the Minister acknowledged. These people need certainty. Equally, parents need to know what measures are going to be in place to reduce the substantial childcare costs borne by them day to day and week to week. Will they also have an assurance that by September they can expect to see their fees being reduced?

The Deputy made several points. By the end of March, childcare services will have a strong understanding of the amount they will be receiving under core funding provision. I cannot tell the Deputy when the JLC process will end; it is independent of me. I hope that it will complete and bring forward the employment regulation order in the spring or early summer so we can continue to implement these measures. We are continuing to support childcare providers. I refer to the work my Department is doing to implement the better pay scales from September of this year, as well as to work done across government on the introduction of sick pay, which is something that has been absent for childcare providers for many years. That measure will be provided under work the Tánaiste is doing.

Regarding certainty for parents, we have brought in this new commitment that providers who wish to access core funding will not be able to increase their fees in 2022 over and above what they were in 2021. That is the first step in controlling of fees, and that will allow us to address this issue in future budgets. We have a commitment across government to invest further in the NCS in measures that will significantly reduce fees for parents.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

121. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the expert group established to develop a new funding model for ELC and SAC; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5449/22]

I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy McAuliffe. First 5, a whole-of-government strategy for babies, young children and their families, commits to increasing investment in the early learning and care, ELC, service by up to €1 billion by 2028. Can the Minister provide an update on the expert group established to develop a new funding model for the ELC and school age childcare, SAC, services?

The expert group was established in September 2019 to develop a new funding model for early learning and care and school age childcare. The group was tasked with examining the current model of funding and with considering how additional resourcing could best be structured to achieve a high quality, affordable, accessible and sustainable sector. The expert group was independently chaired and comprised national and international experts across multiple fields. It met 21 times. The expert group has now completed its work and its report, Partnership for the Public Good, PPG, was published on 7 December 2021.

Following the Government's consideration and acceptance of its 25 recommendations, work has now commenced on their implementation. I was happy to have the opportunity to meet the chair of the expert group before the Estimates process to allow the emerging recommendations of the group to inform the package of measures announced in budget 2022. We spoke about those earlier. I refer especially to a new core funding stream for services to support improved quality, affordability and sustainability and to support the drawing up of the employment regulation order, which is so important in getting better paper staff. That measure is being introduced. It will be worth €69 million this year, and €207 million in a full year. Participation in core funding will require the services to not increase the fees charged to parents from the rates applied in September 2021.

Budget 2022 also announced an extension in the age of children eligible to access the universal NCS subsidy and a change in respect of the removal of how wraparound hours for NCS subsidies are determined. These measures were also recommended by the expert group. Budget 2022, therefore, began the implementation of the expert group’s recommendations. The full implementation of all its recommendations will be progressed in the coming years, as additional funding is secured through the annual Estimates process. I again emphasise that there is strong agreement across all three Government parties on the importance of including measures in the next budget to address affordability and provide significant investment in NCS to save parents money.

I thank the Minister. The report issued by the expert group in early September on funding and the Department’s report, Nurturing Skills, were both welcome and timely. Access to affordable early learning and childcare supports a fair society, sustainable communities and a thriving economy. The Minister is acutely aware of the challenges facing parents, childcare professionals, childcare providers and he is working to address them.

I regularly hear from constituents who raise issues concerning the affordability and availability of childcare. One issue that comes up is that those who pay privately pay extraordinary fees. In addition, those who can be subsidised struggle to find a service. Many service providers tell me about issues in respect of building costs, insurance costs and fire safety requirements, while staffing is also a major issue. Equally, many childcare workers tell me how they want to have an opportunity to stay working in the sector and to progress within it as valued employees.

I am aware that budget 2022 provided funding to begin the implementation of these recommendations, including €69 million for the new core funding stream from September 2022. This is equivalent to €207 million in a full year. What is the status of the other recommendations contained within the expert group's report? Will the expert group continue to play an oversight or advisory role?

The Deputy has quickly summarised the huge range of complexities in this sector. These are complexities that we are seeking to address, and we are taking a step-by-step approach to doing that. On the issue of affordability, in this year’s budget we have been able to take a significant step in respect of the extension of the NCS. The 50 cent per hour subvention, which is a part of that scheme and which every parent received for a child aged between zero and three attending childcare, has been extended. In September this year, that subvention will cover those aged from zero to 15. Therefore, any child aged between zero and 15 attending childcare will get a 50 cent subvention per hour. This is a first step, but it is an important one, because all children will now be getting a basic level of subvention from the State for the childcare they receive.

Turning to the wider recommendations of the expert group, one I am particularly passionate about pursuing is the DEIS-type model and approach to dealing with disadvantage within the early years sector. A range of recommendations has been made and I hope to start to implement some of those measures in budget 2023.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Childcare professionals demonstrated incredible resilience throughout the pandemic in supporting children and keeping the services open.

We have to compliment them on that. They have played a significant role during the pandemic. A new funding model will be a key vehicle to ensuring that such significant additional investments deliver for children, families and the State. I know all Members share the aims of achieving equality for children, affordability for parents, stability for providers and supports for employers, as well as improving pay and conditions for staff. The figures indicate that 42% of early years educators are actively looking for a job outside childcare, with 75% of them identifying low pay as the reason for leaving their profession. These are professionals but many of them only earn €12.40 an hour. A provider told me she would love there to be some kind of individual coaching in the sector to support providers to grow and succeed and achieve their aims as well as those of the Government. What are the next steps for the development of a work plan for the sector?

I thank the Deputy for recognising the excellence across the early years professional sector. That excellence is always demonstrated, but was particularly apparent during the Covid pandemic. She rightly identified that far too many early years professionals are seeking to leave the sector and that is primarily due to the issue of pay. There have already been three or four questions today on that issue of pay. I welcome the strong focus of Deputies on the issue. I am sure the sector and childcare professionals welcome it as well. I have outlined the very significantly funded measures the Government is taking to start to address the issue of pay. It does go beyond pay. The Deputy referred to coaching. There has to be a sense for early years professionals, particularly those starting out, that they have a career and a progress path. That is what the workforce development plan I published in December is all about. It is about creating career structures and putting in place supports for continuing professional development, coaching and the like to make sure people can see they have a long-term future in the sector.

Children in Care

Catherine Connolly

Question:

122. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the research and data project to examine the lives of children in care and adults who were in care as children; the person or body that will carry out the research; if the steering group has been established to date; if so, the details of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5430/22]

Baineann mo cheist leis an taighde atá beartaithe ag Roinn an Aire bunaithe ar an moladh ag eascairt as tuarascáil an bhreitheamh Ryan a foilsíodh in 2019. My question relates to the status of the research and data project that arises from action 65 of the report prepared by Mr. Justice Ryan in 2009. What is the status of that research? Has it been commissioned? Are there terms of reference? When will it start and when will it be completed?

I thank the Deputy for her question on what will be a landmark piece of research and data project. I was delighted to announce the project last week after receiving the support of the Government for its commencement. The project comprises a suite of research and data activities that will strengthen our understanding of the lives of children in care and adults who have been in care. This work will provide us with much-needed insights into their experiences and valuable evidence about their outcomes. The project, which is a key priority of mine, will inform the development of effective and responsive policies in my Department and services, but also across government, that best serve the needs of children and young people in the care of the State. It will encompass a ten-year longitudinal study of children transitioning from care, in line with the recommendations of the Ryan report, but will also include other bespoke studies on children in care to complement improved data systems. The project will be led by my Department, with Tusla as a key partner.

There are five basic elements to the project. First, there is the development and agreement of a project plan informed by meaningful consultation with stakeholders. We are starting that now. Second, there is ongoing development of the capacity of the national child care information system, NCCIS, in Tusla to track dynamically the individual pathways of children through care. Third, there will be a once-off study of a cohort of children who left care ten years ago in order that we can immediately get some understanding of young adults ten years after care. As I mentioned, there is the longitudinal study, starting with a cohort of children who are aged 16 and then engaging with them for the subsequent ten years of their lives, again looking at outcomes.

The project will facilitate further bespoke research studies on children in care and aftercare where more detailed information is needed about their circumstances. This will complement improved system data and also provide children in care with an opportunity to have their voices heard. Examples of this could be an examination of the reasons for some categories of children being over-represented in the care system.

I thank the Minister. I am delighted he is delighted, but the report was published in 2009 and here we are, 13 years later. I really would like a timeframe in respect of the research. Who is carrying it out? I am delighted that we are now going to listen to the voices of children. Those voices were never listened to in the past. There are 6,000 children in care. Every year, 500 children come out of the system at the age of 18. Focus Ireland has described this as a cliff edge, with one third of those who have left care being either homeless or at risk of homelessness. Children who were in care are over-represented in the prison system. The Irish Penal Reform Trust found that in 2019 40% of young people in Oberstown Children Detention Campus had been in care or had significant involvement with Tusla. I could highlight any of the figures relating to this issue, but I am wondering why this research is only starting now. I acknowledge that its commencement was recommended well before the time of the Minister. The Ryan report was devastating. It revealed systemic abuse, sexual and physical, at every level in boys industrial schools and so on. This project was one of its practical recommendations.

Undoubtedly, the research should have been commenced before now. I could give the Deputy a range of bureaucratic reasons why that did not happen. What is happening, however, is that I have recognised this as an outstanding piece of work and I have prioritised it. I note the welcome that Empowering People in Care, EPIC, and similar groups have given to the announcement by the Government, an announcement that is backed up by funding. The project is structured and it is led by Tusla but it has the engagement of other groups as well in terms of the structure. We are serious about this. That is evident from the fact that we are not just doing the longitudinal study that is so essential, we are also doing the initial research looking now at young people ten years out of care and their outcomes. We are not waiting for the ten-year longitudinal study to go through; we will actually get some information now. It is also about better using the information we have through the NCCIS and allowing that to shape policy in the short term while we await the various waves of data from the longitudinal study.

I welcome the progress and, as always, the bona fides of the Minister but I still do not have a handle on when this is going to start, when it will finish and who will spearhead it. How much information will be available publicly? Are there terms of reference and so on? I ask those questions specifically because it is now 2022 and some actions of the Ryan report have still not been implemented. They did not form part of my question but it is important to point out they have not been implemented. I would appreciate if the Minister was in a position to update me on why they have not been implemented and which ones are still to be implemented. There was an implementation body that was very effective. It gave regular updates on the implementation of the Ryan recommendations. As in the case of mental health, having an implementation body in this context is important. I understand it is no longer there but the Minister is getting regular updates on the actions taken. Are those updates public? Can we see on what the Minister is being updated in respect of the work of the Ryan report carried out on the back of the horrific suffering of boys and girls in care?

As I said, the project will be led by my Department. There will be a unit within my Department leading out on this work. Tusla will be a key partner. Our first piece of work is to engage in consultation with the stakeholders on the design of the various elements. The next piece of work will be to undertake the research on the group who are ten years out of care. Work will then begin on the longitudinal study and bring together the cohort at which it will be looking. I will ask officials of my Department to provide written detail on the timelines. Obviously, this will be a lengthy piece of work. It will be in progress for at least ten years because that is what a longitudinal study is. I refer to the Growing Up in Ireland study, which provides two or three really valuable pieces of research each year that influence policy decisions and enable my Department to respond. That is what we will get from this longitudinal study. I will write to the Deputy. I ask her to outline in writing exactly what she is seeking and we will get her a detailed analysis-----

Perhaps the Department can follow up on what has been said today and I will take it up from there.

Direct Provision System

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

123. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of persons being housed in direct provision to date; the number of these in own-door accommodation; the progress made to date in fulfilling the commitments in the programme for Government in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4644/22]

I am seeking an update on accommodation for people in direct provision. Significant commitments were made in that regard. I know some actions have been taken. I ask the Minister to update me on own-door accommodation, for example.

Are we progressing in moving people through the system faster? I know that is not the Minister's direct responsibility but he must be talking to the Minister of Justice and asking whether we can speed the process up and have fewer people in direct provision once their cases have been decided.

As of 30 January, there were 8,582 people accommodated in the direct provision system as a whole. This includes 5,828 persons in international protection accommodation services, IPAS, centres, 1,065 in emergency accommodation centres, 396 in the national reception centre in Balseskin, 323 in quarantine facilities and 970 in pre-reception facilities. Within direct provision centres and the national reception centre, 74% of residents have access to independent living facilities. Residents can cook and shop for themselves, families have access to private living spaces and social spaces, and 31% have access to own-door unit settings, which means they live in self-contained units such as apartments with private kitchens and living spaces.

Recently, my Department published a request for tender seeking accommodation for the transitional period up to 2024. The accommodation being sought includes own-door accommodation for families in the international protection process.

The White Paper on Ending Direct Provision has established a blueprint for a new system of supporting and accommodating people seeking international protection in Ireland, centred on a not-for-profit approach and grounded in the principles of human rights, respect for diversity and respect for privacy and family life. This system will come into operation fully by the end of December 2024. We have set up a White Paper transition team within my Department. It drives implementation of the new model. We have a programme board that brings in expertise from other Departments as well as the private sector. We also have an external advisory committee comprising Dr. Catherine Day, Dr. Lorcan Sirr and Dr. David Donoghue. I will actually be meeting them today after these questions.

We have been working closely with a number of other Departments and agencies, in particular the Housing Agency in terms of the provision of new accommodation. Planning is well advanced for the purchasing of properties, developing a system of income support for international protection applicants and integration support. The planning and design of capital projects will commence this year.

Would I be right in thinking that there has been a rapid increase in the number of people in direct provision and, therefore, the number of people seeking asylum? Will the Minister indicate how many people have been in the system for more than four years? It seems that we are left with a problem that should largely have been resolved by people being processed through the system quickly and definitive decisions being made on their cases.

Will the Minister indicate what the alternative model is and how he will get it up and running within two years? From my experience of how slowly matters move, that would be a fair achievement.

That is a lot to get through in one minute. The Deputy is correct, in that there has been a significant increase in the number of people coming to Ireland seeking international protection, particularly since the October-November period. That increase is reflected in the figures that I set out.

I will ask my Department to send the Deputy the specific figure for how many people have been in the system for more than four years. As he knows, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has announced a scheme for regularisation, which is open to people who have been in the international protection process for a number of years. We reckon that approximately 2,800 of them will be able to apply.

Would they be in direct provision?

Yes. The Minister's scheme is primarily for people who are undocumented but it has a secondary stream for people who have been in direct provision for a long time. They will be able to apply for regularisation. Obviously, 2,800 is approximately a quarter of 8,500 or thereabouts, but the scheme will address the needs of a significant number of people who, as the Deputy identified, have been in the system for a long time.

I thank the Minister for that information. There is also a community scheme for refugees whereby communities around the country host refugees. It is a progressive way forward. Has there been much uptake of the scheme by communities? Are many communities coming forward with offers to take refugees? If that could be done, it would not only provide accommodation, but also a loving, open and welcoming community.

I thank the Deputy for highlighting the importance of the community sponsorship scheme. To clarify, it is available to people who have already been identified as refugees under the Irish refugee protection programme, not people coming in through direct provision. Over the past seven months, the scheme has been particularly important to Ireland's rapid response to the situation in Afghanistan. We have issued 550 visas to people fleeing Afghanistan who were at real risk of losing their lives. Many of them are in emergency reception and orientation centres, EROCs, across the country, but they will then move into the community. Many of them are being supported by community sponsorship groups. Deputies may know of groups that are interested in doing something like this. It is definitely a commitment, but a valuable one in terms of the provision of accommodation and the support from and link with local communities. I have met a number of Afghan refugees who are now integrating into our society and are incredibly grateful for the opportunity they have been given.

Questions Nos. 124 and 125 answered with Written Answers.

Domestic Violence

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

126. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of domestic violence refuge spaces nationally that are allocated for 2022; the cost of each refuge space annually; the amount of funding provided for refuge spaces in 2022; and the portion of the extra €41 million allocated to Tusla in budget 2022 that will be spent on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. [5321/22]

This question relates to domestic violence refuge spaces. How many have been allocated for 2022, what is the cost of each and how much funding as been provided overall? More importantly, how much of the additional €41 million allocation to Tusla will be spent on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, services?

Under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, Tusla has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of DSGBV. Tusla is funded from my Department's Vote 40. At the end of 2021, Tusla funded 155 DSGBV-related accommodation units. These consisted of 137 refuge units and 18 safe houses. There were also six other available accommodation units.

Tusla has previously advised the Department that the cost of maintaining a single refuge is in the region of €100,000 annually. This estimated annual operating cost is based on a typical all-year round-the-clock refuge with support services and facilities on site. In 2021, Tusla allocated €28 million in core funding for DSGBV services plus €2 million in contingency funding to address Covid challenges. For 2022, I expect Tusla to increase its core funding to €30 million to support DSGBV services. A further €1 million will be allocated to address recommendations arising from Tusla's accommodation review.

When I issued my performance statement to Tusla, I outlined the overall parameters of Tusla's financial resources after budget 2022 and my priorities for the coming year. Tusla has prepared its annual business plan for 2022 in accordance with section 46 of the 2013 Act. The plan is undergoing the final edits for publication. It will outline the proposed activities for the year and the proposed allocation of financial resources. I am informed that Tusla is currently finalising service level agreements with operators in the DSGBV sector for the coming year and addressing requests for extra funding.

The next step in the provision of DSGBV accommodation will be guided by Tusla's accommodation review. As I outlined in response to a previous question, I expect that to be published by Tusla in the next two weeks.

I thank the Minister. He actually had all the facts and figures for which I was looking. That was welcome.

I thank the Deputy.

It is rare that that is said in this House, but it had to be acknowledged.

We have had many discussions on DSGBV. In our first days back this term, it dominated debate. There is a cost of €100,000 for one space but there are only 18 safe houses. Even if just from an economic point of view, a safe house is a much better option. There are still counties, including Carlow in my constituency, that do not have refuges. Deputy Tully has mentioned Cavan-Monaghan. Should we be considering a housing model instead? I believe there is such a model in Waterford. It would not be possible everywhere but should we be considering it instead of refuges for people who are coming out of domestic violence?

Part of the problem in recent years is that there has been a time limit of, say, three months. The refuge has to put that in place because it has to try to manage its service. However, it is very difficult for people and they often end up drifting back into a very negative, violent relationship.

I fully agree with the Deputy. As she knows, responsibility is moving out of my Department and will be fully a matter for the Minister for Justice in the coming months.

With regard to the ongoing focus, we need to increase the number of refugee places. There is no doubt that a refuge is vital in addressing emergency needs when a woman or family is fleeing a life-or-death situation. However, we also need to include in our discussion the concept of safe houses as a medium-term solution for many families, but perhaps not requiring resources to the extent mentioned by the Deputy. The Deputy referred to the cost, which is €100,000 per space. It is a cost we absolutely must pay but, with regard to having a step-down facility to allow families to move back into a slightly more community-based setting, we need to include safe houses into our understanding of the accommodation we need to provide as we continue to address these issues.

I thank the Minister. We do need a wider debate. I am aware that one was had here over recent weeks. I hope that we can continue it and that action will come of it. One of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality was on relationships and sexuality education, the role of consent and gender power dynamics in relationships. We need to have the wider debate in addition to considering the important resources.

I want to mention counselling and play therapy. From dealing with Amber Women’s Refuge in Kilkenny, which covers both Carlow and Kilkenny, I am aware that the budget for counselling and play therapy is not absolutely guaranteed. For me, this service is one of the most crucial. One does not just leave a violent situation and get on with life the next day, with everything being fine, because a considerable amount of counselling is required. While I am aware that men suffer from domestic violence, it is mainly women. Children are also affected. The service is invaluable. We need to include it in the wider debate.

I welcome the fact that the services are going in under one Department. That is a really good, positive move.

The additional €2 million, bringing the budget from €28 million to €30 million, will be distributed across the services. That will allow the services to invest in more resources. A lot of flexibility is given to services in determining what they need in their area. I hope that will allow for additional resources for therapies such as play therapy, which I agree are vital. I was in Barnardos in Mulhuddart just before Christmas and noted the great benefits. I spoke to some parents and children who have benefited from the service.

It is also important to say that, even though responsibility for accommodation provision will be moving out of my Department, Tusla will still have a child protection role regarding children and families for whom domestic violence has been a key issue. One of the key investments Tusla is making is to put into each of its regions domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, specialists who can deal with those children and families who have had a specific DSGBV experience. The responsibility will remain within Tusla even after the changes we have discussed have taken place. Tusla will continue to have to have the ability to engage with and support families who have suffered from DSGBV.

Disability Services

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

127. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the responsibilities in relation to disability that have transferred to his Department; the total budget for disability provided for in the Estimates of his Department; the priorities in relation to disability for 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4645/22]

I am looking for information on the disability responsibilities that have transferred to the Minister’s Department and the budget involved. Where exactly is the dividing line between his Department and the Department of Health?

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte.

National disability policy transferred to our Department in October 2020 from the Department of Justice and Equality, and this includes co-ordinating two national disability strategies, namely, the national disability inclusion strategy and the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. My Department also acts as the focal point and co-ordination mechanism for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. In addition, responsibility for related legislation also rests with my Department, and this includes the Employment Equality Acts, the Equal Status Acts, the Disability Act, the Irish Sign Language Act and the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act.

Many dedicated disability supports are provided across government — for example, by the Minister for Health and the Minister for Social Protection — and the funding secured within my Department complements the resources given for disability services across government.

Under budget 2022, €1.8 million has been assigned to the disability policy team. This will be used for a broad range of projects to support national disability policy and the programmes and work streams attached to the functions within my Department.

The Deputy may wish to note that responsibility for specialist community-based disability services is due to transfer to my Department from the Department of Health. This is in line with the Taoiseach’s announcement on the formation of the Government. The intention is to have the co-ordination of disability-related issues led by a senior Minister for the first time. Progress is being made in regard to the transfer of community-based disability services. Enabling legislation is due to be published very shortly. The heads were agreed by the Government just before Christmas. It is a complex transfer and it involves very significant amendments to the Health Act 2004 establishing Government arrangements between the HSE and my Department. A budget of more than €2.3 billion will be transferred between Votes while at the same time ensuring no negative impact on current services. Until the enabling legislation is passed in both Houses in early 2022, responsibility for the community-based disability services will remain with the Minister for Health.

I thank the Minister. He has given a very comprehensive and clear answer to the question. I take it from him that, as of now, the services delivered on the ground are still delivered by the Department of Health but they are to be transferred through the complex legislation, which he said is to be passed early this year. In the real world, allowing for all the delays and the processes in the House, is the Minister talking about implementation by the autumn?

Legislation on assisted decision-making has been in gestation for a long time and this has caused much upset. Can the Minister confirm that the legislation will be put through the House expeditiously and that we will be finished once and for all with giving people the right to make their own decisions?

With the help of Deputy Funchion and her committee, the assisted decision-making legislation is being subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. I have no doubt that it will be scrutinised swiftly, after which we can bring it through the House. We need it for June of this year. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I are committed to that. Working with the committee, we seek to do that.

I hope the transfer of functions will occur far earlier than I have outlined. As soon as the legislation comes through the House, it can be implemented. The legislation in this regard is not being subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. This was agreed with the health committee because the legislation is transfer-of-functions legislation. Once it is drafted, it will go straight into the House. That will certainly shorten the timeframe. It concerns a functional change, not a policy change, so I hope we can pass it through the Houses reasonably expeditiously. I hope that by spring, or perhaps early summer, it will be completed and the transfer of functions undertaken.

I welcome that because I have fought for a long time to ensure the disabled would not be considered as having an illness but as a community or group of people who have to be supported so they can live their lives fully. Can I take it that responsibility for all those with mental and intellectual disabilities and so on will be transferred to the Minister and that acute medicine will remain in the hospitals? Can I take it that services such as those offered by the Brothers of Charity and Ability West will be transferred to the Minister’s Department and that such services will be able to benefit from a focus they did not get at times when competing with acute medicine?

That integrated approach, involving looking at persons with a disability not through a medical lens but through a whole-of-services lens, is exactly what the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I are hoping to achieve.

Responsibility for mental health services will not be transferred. Child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and the like will remain with the Department of Health, but responsibility for organisations mentioned by the Deputy, such as the Brothers of Charity, will be transferred to my Department.

Questions No. 128 to 133, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

I ask Deputy Whitmore to introduce her Question No. 134, which seeks a breakdown of the specific amount of funding provided to support domestic violence services.

I did not realise this question would be coming up.

It is only coming up because those with questions before the Deputy are not here.

I would be pleased if the Minister would provide a response to that.

Will the Minister provide a written response?

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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